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July 05, 2021

The government requires drivers to keep license plates on their vehicles to protect public and private safety. Commuters are opting to ride bicycles over driving cars for any number of positive lifestyle benefits, but cyclists trade off the safety afforded to drivers.

License plates are not required by law for bicycles in most areas, but there are various benefits to implementing this measure to protect cyclists in reckless riding behavior. Several American states have attempted bicycle license plate systems on a provisional basis, as documented.

A bicycle license plate is a type of bicycle accessory attached to the frame or seat post. The purpose of this device is for law enforcement officials to quickly identify and track down bicycle owners if they are involved in an accident and/or bicycle theft.

However, bicycle license plates have not yet become commonplace in the United States, with only one state (Minnesota) adopting them. But recent events such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero plan could make bicycle license plates a thing sooner rather than later!

Why bicycle license plates are a good idea

When reviewing the pros of using license plates on bicycles, we see many of the same benefits of vehicles. Let's review a few of those items:

  • Bicycle license plates provide a way to identify the owner of an abandoned bicycle.
  • Bicycle owners can be easily tracked down if they are involved in an accident or bicycle theft, saving law enforcement time (and taxpayer funds) and reducing response time for victims.
  • Ensure that cyclists meet safety standards when traveling at night or during foggy conditions when most accidents involve cyclists.
  • License plates can help law enforcement identify bicycle thieves.

Bicycle license plates make sense because they are so simple to use, affordable and lightweight. More accountability would help create safety for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike. They don't come without the cons, however.

The danger of using license plates on bicycles

While bicycle license plates can serve as an identification device for theft or a bicycle-related accident, they are not without their drawbacks. For one thing, there is no consensus on how to handle bicycle registration fees and/or licensing for cyclists nationwide (this would be necessary if bicycle license plates became commonplace).

Bicycle license plates may be more susceptible to damage than a bicycle's other parts, such as the bike frame. In addition, cyclists might think it's too "clunky" for their bike frame and handlebars due to the plate's size.

Bicycle license plates can require cyclists to carry one of those (legally required) reflective safety vests on them while riding their bicycles at night for drivers and pedestrians to see them better. However, this could pose an inconvenience if the cyclist did not plan to pack this accessory when they leave home!

The future of public safety for cyclists

As of now, it is unclear if bicycle license plates would be beneficial. The pros and cons of bicycle license plates are both valid, but it is hard to tell if bicycle licenses would be more beneficial or not for the general public.

The bicycle license plate has already been implemented in many countries and states. For example, in the United Kingdom, bicycle licenses are required for bicycles ridden on public roads or paths. However, UK bicycle registration is free to any bicyclist who registers their bicycle online with DVLA (Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency). A similar concept has also been enforced in California. Only cyclists aged 16 years old and older are allowed by law to ride without helmets if they possess a valid driver's license from another state.

The tragic truth is that more cyclists are injured every year than drivers or pedestrians. In the United States, in 2018, there were 6,283 pedestrians and 857 bicyclists killed in crashes with motor vehicles. Moreover, these vulnerable road users make up a growing share of total US traffic fatalities: in 2003, they represented 12.6% of fatalities; by 2018, this had grown to 19.5%, according to PedBikeInfo.

If you're a cyclist who rides and commutes a lot and wants to be part of the conversation, it's important to weigh in on if bicycle license plates should be the future. Get in touch with your local representative and communicate your concern, whether you're for or against license plates for bicycles.

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